Narrative History

of the Northern Territory Aerial Medical Service

The Northern Territory Aerial Medical Service was founded in 1934 by Clyde Fenton, a qualified medical doctor who had tought himself to fly. Like the Reverend John Flynn, he could see the potential for providing medical services in the Australia Outback by aeroplane. Unfortunately, Flynn had a policy of not employing doctors as pilots. Undeterred, Fenton raised the money for an aircraft privately and in March 1934 took up the position of Government Medical Officer in Katherine. Here he started an air ambulance service which later grew into the Northern Territory Aerial Medical Service.

Flying his own aircraft, Fenton used primitive airstrips and runways to collect patients and take them back to Katherine for treatment. With no navigational or night flying aids, Fenton was involved in several crashes. The first replacement aircraft was paid for by a government loan, and a second by public donations of the people of Darwin. In late 1937 a new larger aircraft that could carry a stretcher case was provided by the Northern Territory Government.

In May 1940 Fenton was called up for RAAF service. As a consequence, the whole NTAMS organisation was moved from Katherine to Darwin. By now the service had recruited other pilots, doctors, nurses and mechanics. In 1943 the Department of Health of the Northern Territory Government took over the running of the service. Sometime later, the service appears to have been suspended, while aircraft and resources were devoted to the war effort.

In 1945 Jack Slade, a pilot who had served with Fenton in the RAAF, restarted the post-war NTAMS. Flying ex-RAAF DH.84 Dragon aircraft the service resumed operations. NTAMS mostly provided services in the ‘Top End’ northern part of the Northern Territory, while the expanding Royal Flying Doctor Service covered the southern part of the state.

In the 1950s more modern aircraft were obtained and the service became more efficient and professional. In 2004 Pearl Aviation was awarded a ten-year contract to operate four Beechcraft Super King Airs configured as air ambulances for the Northern Territory Aerial Medical Service. Before the ten years had elapsed, the Government appears to have decided to outsource the whole service to a contractor. On 1 July 2010, the New South Wales-based aeromedical charity CareFlight took over the operation on an interim basis. From this date the service was no longer referred to as the Northern Territory Aerial Medical Service. Careflight’s contract was renewed the following year for a full ten years.

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